4th Arizona Cardinals 6-10 (-1)
Pythagorean Wins: 6 (5-11)
Recent Developments: Second round pick Alan Branch has passed the first big hurdle, receiving praise from coaches and teammates alike. For a player that slid largely because allegations of laziness, his dedication in the offseason has to be very exciting for Cards fans. I was pretty hard on the Cards for trading a 4th round pick to move up to acquire Branch, reasoning a team as thin at as many positions as the Cards could scantily afford to draft like they were one chip away from contention, but he could certainly make me eat my words if he realizes some of his immense talent. However he performs, he's never going to make me like the Steve Breaston pick in the fifth.
Reasons for Optimism: The Cards' defense was unlucky against the third down, but not terribly, +7%. They were especially awful on third and long, 56.6%. Both numbers are inclined to regress towards the mean.
Matt Leinart is the best young quarterback in football.
Reasons for Pessimism: The Cards' offense was actually luckier on third downs than the Rams', +13.9% versus +10.9%.
Much has been made of Edgerrin James three 100+ yard games in the final five weeks of last season. Here are the cold facts behind those games: They were accomplished against the 23, 24 and 30 ranked run defenses. James never averaged even 4.5 yards per carry in any of those contests. They corresponded with a flat-line of his already anemic receiving ability (just five receptions for 18 yards).
James is a year younger than Shaun Alexander, but also has nearly 600 more carries worth of wear on his body. Had he been able to increase his production alongside the emergence of Leinart, Cardinals fans might have reason to be optimistic, but no such correlation exists. James left much of his career's success with Peyton Manning and the Colts, "success" being the operative word. In 2005 James was successful on 62% of his runs, destroying Mike Anderson's 55% second place finish. In 2006, James fell to 45% with the Cards, while his replacement, Joseph Addai, recorded and eerily familiar 62% success rate with the Colts. I always flinch when players are accused of being a product of "the system", but James has zero runs beyond 50 yards since his rookie season, has only once averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry (4.6 in 2004) (An average Addai blew past his rookie season, 4.8) and saw his most consistently lauded ability, picking up positive yards and attaining first downs, usurped immediately by his replacement. Addai attained a first down every 3.42 carries, better than James best season, 2003, when he attained a first down every 3.73 carries. The evidence is pretty clear that not only is James on the extreme downside of his career, but that much of his value is inextricably linked to the Colts juggernaut offense.
Levi Brown has been awarded right tackle duties, displacing a better pass blocker, Reggie Wells. Wells is very agile, but more of a finesse blocker who effectively strings defenders wide and away from the quarterback. He is not well suited for the left guard position where he will be forced to push the pile against hulking nose tackles. Brown has the strength and technique to be a ++ run blocker, but is unrefined in his pass blocking technique and not terribly agile.
Very quietly last season the Cardinals greatly improved their pass blocking culminating in an impressive one sack allowed performance against the near full strength San Diego Chargers in week 17 with stone footed Kurt Warner at the helm. In response to the improvement by the O-Line, Ken Whisenhunt, who regular readers of this site know I have quickly soured on, has completely destabilized the line. Gone is promising but oft injured young center Alex Stepanovich, replaced by long time disappointment Nick Leckey who has never converted his excellent power into on-field production. His late move to center (in his senior season at Kansas State) and disproportionate amount of physical potential compared to line calling acumen bears frightening resemblance to our own Chris Spencer. The current lineup of new and old faces in unfamiliar places should leave Leinart running scared.